Recently I finished two graphic novels (although I really don’t like that term). One was the last in the Spider-Man: Complete Clone Saga Epic series, volume 5. As with the other books in the Clone Saga Epic, this one was hit and miss, although I did think it was a stronger volume that the previous two, at least in terms of storyline. One of my issues with the Clone Saga Epic is that it tended to go on for too long, and as such, there was more repetition and superfluous material (such as tangential storylines that were unnecessary). I certainly understand the reason behind these “weaknesses,” the fact that this was originally serialized in not one or two, but multiple comic book titles, and that because of public demand, Marvel continued the saga for longer than initially projected. So some of the repetition can be explained by the fact that not all readers of the original series bought every comic book in the epic. And the ongoing, and at times unnecessary, storyline(s) are the result of the epic’s popularity. Marvel was just giving the readers what they wanted…and making bucks while doing it. However, the question remains: why collect the Clone Saga Epic in this way if, as longer “graphic novels,” the stories appear weaker? On the one hand I can see collecting everything in these various volumes, just for the sake of completion. But if the collection editor–not the editors of the original comic book series–wanted narrative cohesion and readability, then there should have been quite a bit more cutting. I would guess that the story worked much better in serialized comic-book form. Still, for all its weaknesses, collecting the entire saga is a good thing. Readers just need to read it in context.
A much more exciting comic is Mark Kalesniko’s brand new book, Freeway. Kalesniko is the author of several previous books: Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself?, Alex, and Mail Order Bride. All of these works are well worth reading, but Mail Order Bride is truly outstanding. I’ve read it multiple times and have taught the book almost as many. Kalesniko is a meticulous artist, handling the comic page with such detail that his work becomes thick with meaning. He’s highly adept at perspective and at varying, ever so slightly, what the reader sees from one panel to the next. Much like you’ll find in Asian comics, Kalesniko can take a setting or a situation and draw out its significance by elongating time. He’ll present a scene over multiple panels and through various perspectives. This not only more solidly places you at the center of his narrative, but it’s more effective in creating a mood. The impact of Kalesniko’s art is effected by its multiple facets–using the terminology of McCloud, more aspect-to-aspect transitions–and the reader comes away with a fuller sense of a narrative world than s/he might get in most comics. What’s more, the subject matter of Mail Order Bride, a clash of ethnic cultures and gender expectations, is thought-provoking and perfect for class discussions. I’ve used Mail Order Bride in many of my comics courses, especially in my Comics and American Ethnicity class.
Now Kalesniko applies this same art to Freeway, which he told me will be the last of his Alex books. Alex is a semi-autobiographical character, or at least an artist figure, that runs throughout many of Kalesniko’s books. In the latest work, Alex is stuck in L.A. traffic. That’s it. On the surface, this is a deceptively simple tale, the journey of a man trying to get to work. But like The Canterbury Tales or As I Lay Dying, the quest itself is just a scaffold around which the larger narrative is structured. As Alex sits in traffic, stuck in one jam after another, his thoughts flash back to past events. Along with these, Alex also creates alternative narratives of his own life and of a life that could have been his had he been born a generation earlier. As such, Freeway is a series of interwoven storylines that at times merge and at other times take different exits, much like the traffic in which Alex is stuck. Subtle thoughts and visuals touch off these various narratives, and sometimes you’re not sure at first what story your in at a given moment. Such ambiguity is even more apparent at the very end of the book. As the various stories converge–or better yet, as they unravel–we’re left with what appears to be an ultimate climactic moment. But did what we think happen actually happen? In a text filled with reminisces, visions, and alternate histories, it’s hard to tell. And that’s fine with me.
Even more than in his previous books, Kalesniko has proven himself to be a master of perspective. The first several pages, for example, become a crash course in reading the subtleties of visual placement and focalization. At first he’ll present a scene from one perspective, and then he’ll shift its presentation in such a way that you almost don’t recognize it as the same scene. This causes a momentary sense of defamiliarization, and it forces you to attend more carefully to what you’re reading. In this way, Kalesniko’s art is much like that of Chris Ware’s: you must pay close attention to the art if you want to understand its full meaning.
I’m honestly surprised that more people aren’t familiar with Kalesniko’s comics. His work should get the kind of attention that the “usual suspects” of comics get, the Spiegelmans, the Satrapis, the Wares, and the Bechdels of the world. There’s nothing wrong with the work of these artists, but I get tired of them being the same names that keep cropping up (at least in academia), over and over and over and over again. Comics scholars, or even casual readers, who aren’t familiar with Mark Kalesniko should really think again about their grasp and appreciation of the medium. If they don’t know Kalesniko, then their education is incomplete.